Illustration of two heads with a bridge between and businesspeople crossing with various items representing communication and mindfulness, with coronavirus falling below the bridge
iStock/akindo

As the leader of the Microsoft Japan Labor Program, Noriko Ejima relies on strategic mindfulness every day. But she didn’t expect to.

A division within consumer marketing, the Labor Program works to expand brand awareness using on-site staff to market products in brick-and-mortar electronic stores. Besides representing her team to various APAC and global HQ leaders, she manages more than one hundred outsourced vendor staff.

When coronavirus shook retail foundations, Ejima was forced to pivot. She needed to get all team members and stakeholders on board as quickly as possible. But everyone had different ideas and complaints facing pandemic disruptions—that’s where mindfulness came in.

We spoke to Ejima about how she managed the frenzy and how her lessons learned can help any business stakeholders in the uncertain times ahead.

Noriko Ejima, whose work leading the Microsoft Japan Labor Program led her to understand the value of mindfulness
Noriko Ejima, leader of Microsoft’s Japan Labor Program

COVID-19 has disrupted just about every industry, business, and role. What are the biggest struggles you’re facing?

The biggest challenge for me has been communicating with every stakeholder of the Labor Program. I need to get agreement from everyone, but each person has a different perspective and standpoint.

For example, HQ creates the general global and APAC marketing plans to support sub-region countries, but the Japan team is naturally more focused on its own sales target. There are also cultural gaps to think about, and those don’t only happen between people from different countries! Everyone is doing their best to achieve their goal, and of course we all want to work together, but we’re coming from different places, physically and mentally.  I realized pretty quickly that if we don’t understand each other, the team will break down.

There are some tools (like Microsoft Teams) that help with group discussion and communication. A lot of people these days want things to be simple—they want presentations that are only two or three pages long, for example. The key to all this is mindfulness. My MBA helped me develop a long-term future vision, but it takes a constant learning mindset to understand your colleagues, work smoothly, and grow your skills from day to day.

Can you tell us about a time you used mindfulness recently?

Every day! The consumer business is changing rapidly, so there are constant challenges. But if we’re talking about a specific situation recently…

I had to prepare a case study for our labor deployment plan, including an ROI analysis. The difficult part was setting various KPIs and arranging them into a simple story that people outside of the project (and with no marketing background) would understand. There was no precedent for this kind of report. I didn’t have a model to go on.

So what I did was set some meetings to gain feedback from the people involved. It was tough—almost painful!—to get the agreement of people who didn’t really understand the marketing perspective. But what I learned was that we need to be able to provide a bird’s eye view and make everything as simple as possible to get everyone onboard.

So why can’t we just focus on simplifying everything? Why is mindfulness so important?

Mindfulness is important because innovation is important, and innovation is based on curiosity. Curiosity means willfully learning and trying new things.

However, most people have a similar psychological response to new things: fear, anxiety, defensiveness . . . and ultimately acceptance. For the best results in business, everyone should understand this natural response and adjust their behavior to counteract the negative. That takes mindfulness.

How do you inspire people to communicate without fear?

A lot of it is listening. Under COVID-19, we needed to make a big transition in the Labor program. I had to take one-on-one meetings with the management team and ask them to support our business goals, despite the huge transition and a more limited budget. Understanding that standard psychological response helped so much. I was able to anticipate their reaction and calmly work with them, listening to their concerns and fears as we worked towards solutions.

Has any of this impacted your overall career goals?

Not really. I got my GLOBIS MBA because I wanted to learn about managing people and improve my understanding of business. My goal has always been to support people in the pursuit of their goals. My position really fits with that kokorozashi, and though COVID-19 is making everything more difficult, my responsibilities still fit with that.

I’ve also learned two really important things. First, there’s no 100% correct answer in the business world. Therefore, to improve the probability of success for a business plan, we need to use qualitative and quantitative analysis. Second, every person and every idea benefits from mindfulness. We need to listen to understand, and we need to understand to achieve innovation.

Maybe now more than ever, I’m able to learn every day—I’m able to practice mindfulness, simple communication, and logic in my interactions with others. And that’s really what every businessperson should be doing.